Station Break

Beset by budget problems, bereft of substantive local programming, Channel 8 finds itself at a crossroads. Perhaps it's time to put the "public" back into Houston Public Television.

"One minute to the floor."
The director's countdown call brings to attention all the diverse guests gathered inside Channel 8's studio this Monday afternoon. Off to one side of the main set -- a pastiche of blue and earth-toned backgrounds fronted by two faux columns -- a tittering assemblage of prepubescent models for a "pretty bows and pretty clothes" fashion show brings itself to a hush. Nearby, a balding Medical Center cardiologist toting his ambitiously entitled new book, Stressless Mind and a Priceless Body, shifts nervously in his off-camera chair as he awaits his upcoming interview. The anonymous voice again fills the high ceiling space. "We need the monitor routed to CPCR."

The seconds tick toward the start of another Weeknight Edition, a locally produced "information magazine" that airs each weekday from 5:30-6 p.m. and is repeated later each evening. Other than Capitol Report, a series in which legislative lobbyists for the University of Houston, the owner and operator of Channel 8, allow selected politicians to plug their favored issues, Weeknight Edition is the only stab Houston Public Television is currently making at local programming.

For the most part, Weeknight Edition eschews politics, public affairs and all that other potentially controversial stuff in favor of gardening and cooking tips, fashion and promos for the arts event of the week. Provocation is not the intent. Nor, for the most part, is intellectual stimulation. In fact, it's hard to put a finger on just what the purpose of Weeknight Edition is. The content is so soft, commercial television programmers might be embarrassed to ladle it out to viewers. At times, the program seems more like an unintended parody of the new generation of infomercials clogging cable channels.

Over on the studio's second set, which features chairs, a coffee table and fake windows intended to evoke a sitting room, Weeknight Edition anchors Laura Branch and Doris Childress do a last round of makeup checks on each other. Then, the show starts to unfold in a numbing succession of softball segments. There's a taped feature on a Da Camera pianist, a noncritical look at acupuncture practitioners and an interview with the head of a support group for parents with disabled children. And finally, there is the children's fashion show, featuring a procession of the charmingly self-conscious models clad in Colonial-era garb and toting their dolls.

Somehow, you imagine, this was not the bright future for public TV that its pioneers envisioned in the early 1950s, when they talked of challenging the viewer with creative noncommercial broadcasting. But this is what public TV's output has been reduced to in Houston in the last two years, following a massive staff reduction at Channel 8 that decimated the station's ability to produce local programming with anything remotely approaching substance.

Of course, it's not exactly a new development. Since its launch in 1953, Channel 8 has been periodically criticized for doing little more than retransmitting the national meat of the Public Broadcasting Service -- the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Masterpiece Theater, Sesame Street and a stable of other children's shows -- while taking care, for the most part, not to rock the local boat with provocative documentaries or in-depth issues coverage. At present, that's apparently enough for the station to draw an estimated audience of a million plus local households a week. But other than being the nation's first public television station, KUHT's history is marked by just one national distinction: its refusal to broadcast the controversial PBS productions Death of a Princess in 1980 and Tongues Untied a decade later.

After 43 ho-hum years, KUHT now finds itself at a crossroads. The bulk of its funding comes from the station's viewers via pledges to the Association for Community Television. Yet Channel 8 is hardly a "community" station: the volunteer members of the ACT board have little real influence on how the station is run, or where it is going. Those calls are made by the station manager, who is hired by University of Houston System officials, who are ultimately answerable to the System's board of regents.

In the past year, UH has begun redirecting Channel 8 toward educational priorities in the form of "distance learning," an update of the old telecourse concept that has been tried off and on at the station since its inception. Distance learning is a currently fashionable concept at other cash-strapped university-based stations around the country, but one outspoken public television veteran warns that it is a diversion from the medium's prime mission. In his recently published book The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television, former National Educational Television president James Day writes that public television's ongoing "retreat to the secure redoubt of education" from which it emerged in the fifties is "regressive and the wrong way to go." According to Day, "no area of television programming cries out more insistently for quality than the treatment of news and current affairs," the very area that Channel 8 seems to have abandoned.

As part of KUHT's reorientation, the construction of a new $20 million Center for Public Broadcasting has been proposed to replace the station's cramped and outdated facilities on UH's main campus. That ambitious plan is on hold, for now, with new System Chancellor Bill Hobby, the former lieutenant governor and onetime media executive, having assigned his family's longtime legal counsel, Jim Crowther, to reexamine both the proposed new center and the future of Channel 8.

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